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Coronavirus guide: Communicating with staff and clients

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The situation with the coronavirus (COVID-19) is rapidly evolving as the virus is spreading in countries around the globe, including in the United States. This can make it challenging for your veterinary practice to know how to respond, and it’s important to revisit policies and procedures daily.

First, be aware that the Occupational Health and Safety Association (OSHA) is categorizing employees by risk because of COVID-19.

The US House of Representatives also recently passed a bill that would provide for 14 days of paid sick time and 12 weeks of job-protected paid leave for employees of companies with fewer than 500 employees, For an employee to qualify, he or she must have been working at the practice for 30 days or more. This leave can be used for quarantine purposes if an employee has or has been exposed to the virus, to care for a family member in that situation, or to care for a child if the school or childcare center closed because of the coronavirus.

Employers would receive a refundable 100% tax credit when they pay an employee’s qualified paid sick leave or family leave wages. The tax credit would be given by having the practice’s Social Security taxes lowered by the appropriate amount for each employee. The full credit would be given when employees are sick or quarantined, while a lesser amount could be applied when the employee is caring for a sick family member or needs to stay home to care for children who are home because of a school closing or childcare center closing.

Here is more information for your practice to consider.

Communicating with staff

  • Be transparent and openly provide information about the coronavirus to your workforce. This includes any updated policies regarding hygiene and other safety precautions, along with any business-travel limitations, quarantine requirements, and so forth. If there are opportunities to work remotely for some positions, discuss the parameters.
  • Ensure that the workplace has enough supplies to meet the personal hygiene and facility-cleaning policies in place. This includes soap, hand sanitizer, hand wipes, disposable cleaning wipes, tissues, and whatever else is needed for your practice. Hygiene standards should include:
    • Washing hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or more, and/or the use of a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
    • Avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth
    • Covering up nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing with tissues when possible, or sleeves or shoulders, when a tissue is not available
    • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects that are frequently touched
    • Providing employees with receptacles that don’t require touching (such as those operated by a foot petal)
    • Having sanitizing wipes available in break rooms and other public areas
  • Cancel business travel or limit it to critical issues. Carefully consider what is to be defined as “critical.”
  • Ask employees for input on ways the practice can be made safer, especially regarding hygiene issues.
  • Provide your employees with trusted resources, such as up-to-date information provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and OSHA. Encourage them to refer to this information whenever they have questions, something that is especially important to do when rumors and misinformation are being shared on social media channels and more.
  • Download fact sheets and posters from the CDC and put them in breakrooms, restrooms, and so on.
  • According to the CDC, employers must actively encourage their employees to stay home when they have signs of sickness or have been exposed to people who are sick. These employees must remain home until all signs of sickness, including fever, are gone for at least 24 hours. The CDC also states that employers should immediately send home employees who have acute respiratory-illness symptoms.
  • Consider offering more flexibility with attendance policies and sick leave to facilitate the ability of employees to stay home when needed. This can help to reduce COVID-19 exposure among members of the workforce and, by extension, to clients. When policies at work are too strict, some employees may be unwilling to share that they’re experiencing symptoms.
  • In some states, employees are entitled to paid sick leave when schools for children are closed due to a public health issue. Other states are talking about allowing temporary disability for parents who cannot work and must stay home with children. Check to see what your state laws are; although you can do more for employees than what the law dictates, the minimum legal requirements must be met. Note that a federal bill may soon be passed on this subject.

In 2009, when the H1N1 flu reached the pandemic stage, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided a document that shared how employees can manage the threats associated with the pandemic in ways that are consistent with the American Disabilities Act (ADA). One component of this document focuses on whether a pandemic has risen to a “direct threat level.” When reading this document, know that, as of the time of writing this guide, the CDC has not determined whether the coronavirus can be considered a “direct threat.” 

The CDC has, however, issued guidance for employees about how to respond to issues related to the coronavirus.

The American Veterinary Medical Association is investigating potential supply chain issues for veterinary practices because of the COVID-19 outbreak. As of February 28, 2020, no shortages were reported by companies that make drugs for animals for the US market or who source ingredients from China for pharmaceuticals. Having stated that, 6 out of 32 companies reviewed may have disruptions in the supply chain that could cause shortages soon.

Federal Drug Administration (FDA) officials are working to identify and mitigate potential shortages in pharmaceuticals and had recently completed similar investigations on medical products and devices. If you have concerns or questions about availability of key items, the AVMA asks that you email them at [email protected]. Please include detailed information and, if possible, the manufacturer or distributor. 

In addition, the CDC states that no animals in the United States have been diagnosed with COVID-19, adding that there is no evidence that dogs or other pets can contract or spread the disease. The main concern is for human health.

Communicating with clients  

It is recommended that animal owners keep an emergency supply of food and medications for their pets, with two weeks being the typical recommendation. Veterinary practices may decide that it’s prudent to limit client visits to emergency ones only, at least until the United States is past the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Have hand sanitizers available wherever pet owners may be sitting in areas of your practice and be prepared to answer their questions about their pets. Share what you’re doing to keep the facility sterilized. If clients ask questions about human health, you can refer them to the resources listed above—the CDC and WHO—and recommend that they talk to their doctors.

Making a contingency plan

It’s important to create a plan in which you’ll have an essential staff only. You may or may not need to implement this plan, but it’s crucial to be ready to implement it at a moment’s notice. This may mean having only one doctor on duty and just enough support staff for that veterinarian. Consider having telephone lines forwarded to a staff person working remotely who can answer questions that are commonly being asked and to serve as a liaison for other questions.

Review your cleaning procedures. Although they may be enough for typical situations, you may need to consider specialty cleaning products or add additional cleaning times. Consider reviewing the 2018 AAHA Infection Control, Prevention, and Biosecurity Guidelines.

Finally, create a plan about how you’ll communicate with one another if the practice needs to be temporarily shut down because of the need for a quarantine.

Telemedicine and hands-free options

Under the broad umbrella of telehealth—the use of technology to provide health information remotely—telemedicine provides information about a patient’s clinical health through electronic communication. This is a hands-free form of veterinary practice that you may choose to incorporate, fully or in part, during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the AVMA, a veterinarian-client-patient-relationship (VCPR) must exist before a veterinarian provides specifics about medical conditions, including to prescribe medications or otherwise treat patients. If a VCPR does not exist, health-related information provided electronically should be general. In other words, it should not be specific to a patient and should not offer a diagnosis or provide treatment. An exception is for emergency care–related advice given with a follow-up anticipated.

A VCPR is established when the veterinarian undertakes the position of making medical judgments, including treatment, for an animal and the client has retained the veterinarian to do so.

During this pandemic, the AVMA is encouraging veterinary practices to use smart devices and other technologies to connect with clients and patients within the VCPR parameters.

For in-person appointments, hands-free options can be considered. Clients and pets would be met in the front lobby and a member of the veterinary team would take the pet from the client. The client would then leave the hospital after providing the veterinary team member with a phone number and being given a time for a consultation call.

It is recommended that, with this system, there is fast turnaround so that clients can return to pick up their pets and pay for the services. This provides for efficient service where the veterinarian can see the pet (rather than providing telemedicine services) with a limited time stay and less in-person contact.

Conclusion

As noted at the beginning of this document, responses to the pandemic may rapidly evolve as the situation does. So use these resources appropriately for your practice, and review them often.

Kellie Olah, SPHR, SHRM-CP, is the human resources consultant with Veterinary Business Advisors and coauthor of the AAHA Guide to Creating an Employee Handbook, Fourth Edition.

Photo credit: © iStock/Kira-Yan